Seven women, six religious leaders, eight authors and thirteen politicians walk into graduation. Although this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, the numbers actually represent some of those who have given keynote addresses at U commencement ceremonies.
Since 1964, the Office of the President and Board of Trustees at the U have worked to bring in diverse individuals to talk at graduation. Among the list of 60 keynote speakers are authors, artists and religious and government leaders.
The first speaker on record is Samuel Thurman. He was an alumnus of the U and later dean of the U’s College of Law. Thurman also authored an ethics textbook that is still used in law education today.
A great deal of men have spoken at graduation, but not nearly as many women. Barbara Ward Jackson, a British author and economist, was one of the first women to talk at commencement when she addressed graduates in 1965. She was known for urging people to share their wealth with the world. Other women who presented at commencement include Helen Papanikolas, who talked about Utah’s ethnic identity, Marian Wright Edelmen, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Christine Durham, chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.
Half of the keynote speakers have had Utah connections. Calvin Rampton, who spoke in 1975, was then the governor of Utah. In 1986 J. Willard Marriott, namesake for the U’s library, talked about philanthropy and making a difference. Maurice Abravanel, music director of the Utah Symphony for more than 30 years, spoke at the 1980 commencement. Most recently, Alex Smith, a former U football player, addressed the 2014 graduating class.
Nichole Tawzer, a recent U graduate, said the topic of Smith’s speech has stayed with her.
“He talked about embracing the new things in our lives and making them work for us,” Tawzer said. “There have been several times over the past year as I’ve started a new job and new opportunities have come along that I’ve thought about that speech.”
For a period of seven years, between 1965 and 1971, the U had two keynote speakers. The first spoke at spring graduation, while the other spoke at a summer graduation.
Utah’s religious identity has also been represented among keynote address speakers. The state’s two largest religions, Mormonism and Catholicism, have both had representatives address graduates. A total of five Mormon leaders, including Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, prophets past and present of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have been invited to the U for commencement. Two Catholic leaders — George H. Niederauer, the 8th Bishop of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese, and Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame — have also spoken at graduation.
This year the U will host Robert McDonald, United States secretary of veteran affairs. He will join 13 other politicians and government leaders who have given the keynote address since 1964.
Laura Byl, a freshman in psychology, said she can’t wait to see who the university chooses as the commencement speaker for her own graduation in a few years.
“You can tell they put a lot of thought into who they pick,” Byl said. “Personally, I think it would be neat to have more international speakers, but the list is pretty impressive.”
COMMENCEMENT SPEAKERS BY NUMBERS:
GENDER: 53 men, 7 women
POLITICIANS/GOVERNMENT LEADERS: 13 total; 8 Republicans, 3 Democrats, 2 unaffiliated
RELIGIOUS LEADERS: 7 total; 5 Mormon, 2 Catholic
REPRESENTATIVES FROM OTHER UNIVERSITIES: 9
JUSTICES OF U.S. SUPREME COURT: 3
AFFILIATED WITH THE STATE OF UTAH: 30
INTERNATIONAL: 3 total; 2 from England, 1 from Ireland
DOCTORS AND SCIENTISTS: 4, including 1 Nobel Prize winner
PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM WINNERS: 4
NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS: 1
PULITZER PRIZE WINNERS: 1
PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES: 1